New Zealand has just scored its worst ever PISA ranking despite the Ministry of Education stating results are likely to be skewed upwards earlier this year.
PISA results for the 2022 cohort were released in early December 2023, and showed a global decline in performance. In New Zealand, average scores dropped 15 points in maths and science and reading scores fell four to five points. The gaps in achievement between wealthier and lower-socioeconomic students also grew wider.
Despite the drop in performance, New Zealand still scored above the OECD average in all three subjects. We ranked 10th in reading performance, 11th in science and 23rd in maths.
Only four countries: Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic and Chinese Taipei improved their performance in all three subjects.
Overall average scores for 81 countries dropped significantly in maths and reading, and slightly in science since 2018. Globally, scores dropped by an average of 15 points for maths, and 10 points for reading. Twenty-points is cited as equivalent to approximately a year of learning.
Why the slump?
The accompanying PISA report stated that the drop in performance could be in-part attributed to COVID-19, yet performance was already trending downward for many countries, including New Zealand. It also stated that length of school-closures did not seem to directly impact performance of students.
However, the report does note that teacher support is vital in times of learning disruption. In New Zealand, however, the education system has been facing wide-spread staffing shortages. In the secondary context, specialised teachers are proving hard to recruit, with many turning to overseas applicants.
In New Zealand, the gap between rich and poor students also widened – the average score for the richest quarter of New Zealand students was 102 points higher than the average score for the poorest quarter of New Zealand students. Socioeconomic difference accounted for 16 percent of variation in New Zealand performance.
Fourteen percent of ākonga in New Zealand reported not eating at least once a week in the past month, higher than the OECD average of 8 percent.
Māori and Pacific student performance showed a larger decline than the New Zealand average. Almost half (47 percent) of Māori students performed below the baseline PISA level in maths.
Pacific students also showed lower than average reading level attainment.
PPTA Te Wehengarua acting president Chris Abercrombie said:
“The main result PISA consistently shows is that if you are fortunate enough to be born into a financially comfortable family, you will do better academically.
“I hope the Government reads the writing on the PISA wall and realises that if it is serious about improving educational achievement, the most important thing it can do is address the widening gap between the haves and have-nots in Aotearoa New Zealand.”
New Zealand on the world stage
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a two-hour test administered to 15-year-olds across the globe. It assesses literacy, numeracy and science literacy. In 2022 it also tested creative thinking. It is administered every three years and is used to compare international student achievement. It has been ongoing since 2000, gathering data and building a picture of trends in educational performance between and within countries.
Earlier this year, the Ministry of Education flagged that our PISA testing may not meet sampling standards as many schools refused to participate due to pandemic pressures. However, New Zealand joined Australia, Canada, Denmark, Hong Kong, Ireland, Jamaica, Latvia, the Netherlands, Panama, the United Kingdom and the United States in failing to meet sampling standards. That means this year, PISA scores must be interpreted with caution.
In the New Zealand context, educators have also flagged that students are not taught to PISA standards, instead using the New Zealand curriculum. There have been reports that some participating students circled ‘c’ for every answer as there is no personal gain or benefit to be had from the test. Scott Haines, vice-president of the Secondary Principals’ Association of New Zealand (SPANZ) is among the New Zealand educators who say that PISA is “no longer fit for purpose”.
“A number of schools see no value in it,” said Haines.
The problem with PISA
Haines and his New Zealand colleagues are not the only educators to raise the flag on PISA. In 2014, more than 100 academics called for a pause in PISA testing. They expressed concerns about the impact it has on education systems globally, and the “negative consequences” of PISA in an open letter. The most important of these, stated in the open letter is that:
“The new Pisa regime, with its continuous cycle of global testing, harms our children and impoverishes our classrooms, as it inevitably involves more and longer batteries of multiple-choice testing, more scripted “vendor”-made lessons, and less autonomy for teachers. In this way Pisa has further increased the already high stress level in schools, which endangers the wellbeing of students and teachers.”
Other concerns include the overemphasis of economy at the expense of civic duty in education and the creation of many public-private partnerships that incentivise for-profit uses of PISA. The letter also notes that education policy can be unjustly driven by PISA, creating “short-term fixes” despite research showing that education change requires “decades”. Another criticism is that PISA encourages a narrow view of education, focused on achievement.
Yong Zhao, a Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas, wrote that PISA is a “masterful magician”.
“It has successfully created an illusion of education quality and marketed it to the world.
“First, there is no evidence to justify, let alone prove, the claim that PISA indeed measures skills that are essential for life in modern economies. Second, the claim is an imposition of a monolithic and West-centric view of societies on the rest of the world. Third, the claim distorts the purpose of education.”
In New Zealand, the Education system is now responding to our PISA results. National has promised that more standardised testing, removing distractions like phones from classrooms and a stronger focus on “basics” like literacy and numeracy will lift our educational attainment.
But as some critics like Jonathon Milne say: “however much you weigh the pig, it doesn’t fatten it up.”